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Filtering by Tag: education

The Battle in Public and Heavenly Places

Ross Gale

History-Mythology-Oil-Painting-0034 Matthew Fox tells the story in his book Creativity, about a group of fundamentalists who became the majority on a New Hampshire county school board. Their first decree was to not allow the use of the word "imagination" in the classroom. When Mr. Fox inquired what they were afraid of they said, "Satan. Satan lives in the imagination."

I assume much of this spiritual sentiment comes from poor interpretation of verses like Ephesians 6:12, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Ephesians 6:12 aside, what a strange ethereal battle to fight within a school: invisible forces and the thoughts of others. It’s difficult enough fighting battles against enemies we can see, how much more against ones we cannot. Who is to gauge whether we’re winning or not? When is the battle over?

Ephesians 6:12 places this ongoing battle in the heavenly places, epouraniois. A curious word Paul creates out of his imagination just for the purpose of this letter. It’s a place above the sky, a place where Christ sits, but also a place with enemies. Satan is in epouraniois.

The late painter Thomas Kinkade called himself the Painter of Light and preferred to portray the world without the fall, without evil or the possibility of Satan. In speaking of a mural he painted for the Billy Graham Library, he said painting it was "a moment of divine inspiration" and that the painting offers viewers "a glimpse of a heavenly realm."

Should we be creating canvasses full of light without a hint of darkness? Can violence and evil have a purpose in our art, in our imaginations?

As Gregory Wolfe comments about Kinkade's art: “If faith teaches us anything, it should be that our nostalgia is for an ideal we can only find after accepting, and passing through, the brokenness of a fallen world. Any other approach, in art or in life, is a form of denial."

If evil is here to stay, in our high places, in our low places, in our heavenly places, and if imagination is to play a vital role in schools and in our lives, then our fight isn’t against the power of these places — whether heavenly or imaginative — our fight is for unqualified truth. In that truth we begin to see the invisible. Only then do we know what we’re up against.

The Ridiculous Boat Called English

Melissa Reeser Poulin


I am teaching more these days than I have at any other time in my life, and every time I walk into the classroom I am visited by the same butterflies. They’re probably the same species of nervousness that visits everyone, but they’re also in on a secret. I’m a teacher, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

When I first began teaching English to speakers of other languages, I felt like a tightly wound ball of rubber bands. I suspected I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know my grammar well enough, and I certainly didn’t know enough of the pedagogy particular to teaching English language learners. Conversations in the staff room only confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t know as much as the other teachers did, and no one could find this out.

So I got myself a good grammar textbook and a survey of contemporary linguistics, and began studying at night. It seemed only fair, since that’s how my students spent their evenings, after five hours in the classroom and however many English-tinted hours they spent commuting home from school. The more I studied, I thought, the better armed I would be in the classroom, against their terribly trusting stares and the questions I was convinced I would be unable to answer. I needed to master English, so I could shake out all its tricks into a smooth set of operating instructions.

The more I learned and continue to learn about this language, however, the more ridiculous the idea of mastery seems. It’s like naming myself captain of an ancient, unwieldy paddle boat and assigning the students seats, then showing them how to operate the vessel.

What I’ve discovered is that learning alongside my students is exactly where I want to be. I don’t want them to be idle passengers, expecting me to shield them from every wave and iceberg. I want them with me at the wheel, figuring it out as we go. While a little bit of protective filtering is helpful, it’s extremely useful for them to see how native speakers wrestle with language, too.

I love this ridiculous boat called English. I’ve made my life in it. Teaching language is just one more phase in my love affair with the words I’ve been drinking in since birth. That’s the only thing I can really say I “have” to teach. I want to keep learning, but I am trying to let that be a means to an end rather than the end.

A Better Way to Fail

Scott Robinson

 Colorado. 1955.

The crumpled piece of paper had gotten stuck in the back corner of the cubby, wedged into a gap in the cherry veneer. I had been slowly working my way across the row of shelving, clearing out the academic residue of another sixth grade year. With a bit of wrangling the paper came loose, unfolding to reveal an old Latin quiz I had given my students months earlier.

I stared at the D minus, following the page down through the misconjugations and blank spaces. Papers like this usually made me pause and reflect. Some days it was on how my pedagogy might have fallen short, what I hadn’t conveyed effectively. Other times my thoughts were on the kids, disappointed at their squandered potential or saddened by a knowledge of their poor home environments.

That afternoon, though, I realized I held in my hand a sixth grader’s approach to failure. It was something to be discarded, neglected, suppressed. It provided no value, only a poignant mix of apathy and shame, crushed into a crinkled symbol of disappointment.

In my teaching experience, this concept of failure seemed to be the norm. It’s a bit odd, considering the popularity of contrasting tales. Thomas Edison and his 1,000 failed light bulbs, Albert Einstein’s educational struggles, R. H. Macy’s multiple store closures…history is littered with great artists, scientists, inventors, and industry leaders whose successes were forged through their use of failure as a stepping stone for improvement and growth.

We may tip our hat to all sorts of rich paradigms for understanding failure, but do we make any effort to incorporate them into our educational methodology? The dusty paper in my hand said otherwise. It spoke of failure as static, as a terse, single-minded declaration: “insufficient”.

Such an approach to failure is useful in one way, at least —it provides a quantifiable, universal notion that fits well into political sound bites on the state of modern education. But if seen as an exclusive definition, it threatens to suck educational policy into a vicious cycle driven only by a desire to lower the number of such “insufficients”.

But my intention is not to delve into the politics of education, it is to open an inquiry: What if we were to handle failure less as a judgmental declaration, and more as a constructive conversation? What if it was seen less as an end, and more as a beginning?

Perhaps I would not have discovered the abandoned quiz that day, had its young recipient known a better way to fail.

(Photo by Elliott Erwitt)

A Modern Voice Can Survive

Michael Dechane

pleasantville2-1 I collect books about hunting and fishing from the 50s, 60s and early 70s. In them I see the images and hear the voices that taught my father to hunt and fish, to be outside in pursuit of something, and I hear strains of how he taught me: this is a personal obsession much more than an academic one. Still, I love titles like Why Fish Bite and Why They Don’t (1961), and Game Cookery (1967). I love the examples of some of the first mass printing of color photography, and captions that read “A quiet afternoon on the lake is the best way to enjoy the Great Outdoors.” I love the authoritative voices of the authors detailing the best way to build a duck blind, or how to tie an Improved Clinch Knot.

These books were produced as Modernity was making its last stand in the American Academy, in the years leading up to, and just through, the succession of Postmodern intellectuals and the seismic cultural shifts that have followed. Those shifts are visible now in the ways we talk about conservation of natural resources, sportsman and environmental ethics, and generally, what going into the wild to catch and kill and eat means.

The books I collect are just another lens for me to look at these things when I can’t stomach another Cormac McCarthy novel or blog post about evangelism in our Postmodern world today. We haven’t improved the Improved Clinch Knot, but we think we’ve bettered the way we teach and talk about everything. Isn’t it good, we say, that we aren’t pretending things are so simple, so black and white as the photos in my books? Knowing what is true, teaching what is true, isn’t simple because it means a doing and experiencing to know Truth. Eventually that will mean some kind of bloody engagement with what has been made, the world we have to live in.

Yesterday I found a two-page spread describing, with small grainy photos, how to fillet a fish with seven strokes of a sharp 10 inch knife. Where are you going to look? How are you going to learn?

What Do These Four Film Characters Have in Common?

Eric Fullgraf

9 Teachers

Before you read this post, you may want to ponder what these four film characters have in common (besides “awsome-ness”).

The Classic Teacher Film

Hollywood has been very kind to teachers. Every now and then they release a film such as Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Holland’s Opus or Dead Poet’s Society that portrays a teacher. The formula goes something like this: saintly, dedicated, long-suffering teacher accepts a faculty position at a [stuffy prep school / tough, inner-city school]. The teacher endures: tradition-bound, inflexible administrators, pauper’s wages, academic bureaucracy, competitive colleagues, founders/donors with agendas, hateful parents, false accusations, intolerance to his teaching methods (no matter how enlightened) and ungrateful, unteachable students (especially one, particularly unpleasant and resistant student).

In most cases the teacher is marginalized, passed over for advancement or eventually loses his faculty position to leave in disgrace. By the end of the film he is vindicated and recognized for his positive influence in the lives of the students. This usually takes the form of a teary-eyed standing ovation or some other tribute, but we all know that his true reward is primarily in heaven.

Along the way the teacher wins the students over (especially that “one” student). They learn that behind his gruff exterior there stands a teacher who really cares for them. They come to realize that he has taught them to love knowledge and see the world in a better way.

The New Teacher Film

Currently we see a new type of teacher film. It appears in the unlikely genres of science fiction, fantasy and action-adventure. Madam Professor Minerva McGonagall teaches at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. James “Logan” Howlett, aka “Wolverine” teaches at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones holds faculty positions at Barnett and Marshall Colleges. Obi Wan Kenobi is a Jedi Master who teaches padawan learners at the Jedi Academy on planet Coruscant and later as a private tutor on planet Tatooine.

The four pictured characters are all teachers, but they are not mere teachers. What they have in common is that they all do what they teach.

How many times have you heard a student complain, “Teacher, when am I ever going to use this in real life?” They are right to ask this. Students are hungry for applicability. All too often the academic environment dichotomizes theory and practice. Students need to see their teachers actively engaged in the battles of the day.

These four film franchises have been incredibly successful. Perhaps part of their success has been due to the fact that audiences long to see their teachers “in the fray.” The benefits of this approach to teaching are multifold. Students get to see that what their teachers teach really matters. Teachers avoid burn-out by regularly “testing their knowledge in the field of deeds.” Most importantly, the world benefits from the most knowledgeable people bringing their gifts to engage the culture.

Since most teachers are not fighting Nazis, evil geniuses, diabolical wizards or intergalactic empires, what does it look like to engage in spiritual warfare as a teacher? What are some ways that teachers can model this kind of involvement in their field before their students?

Socratic method? What's that?

Andrew Kern

7 socrates

Classical education emphasizes "Socratic dialogue," a mode of teaching named after the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. But what is Socratic teaching? You may have heard that it is "question driven instruction". This isn't wrong, but it's not entirely right. Anyone can ask questions. 

For Socrates it was about Truth. He was so confident that the truth could be known, he developed strategies to discover it. Socrates knew it is hard to see the truth, so he followed a path to rise from error and to raise others from error as well. It has been called the Socratic Method, though Socrates would probably not agree that there is a "method" being followed. Instead, there is a goal: to perceive truth; and there is a means: dialectical thought.

In the simplest sense, Socratic, or dialectical thinking, means examining each thought in order to remove every contradiction and inconsistency. When the inconsistencies are cleaned up, we can move forward to new insights, often using analogies and comparisons from what we already know.

Socrates' approach, when fully realized, passes through two stages.

The first stage is perhaps best called the Ironic stage. Socrates asks questions that help his student see the contradictions and inconsistencies in the student's opinion. If the student is willing to see what Socrates shows him, then he will say those magic words: I don't know. He has reached what Socrates' prodigy, Plato, calls "metanoia," the Greek word for repentance. It means "a change of mind." According to Socrates, the person who accepts his own ignorance is prepared to see the truth.

Socrates then begins the second stage. Here he helps the student remedy his ignorance. Whereas the goal in the first stage was to demonstrate the disharmony of the student's thought, the goal of the second stage is to restore harmony on a more solid foundation.

Underlying this "method" were at least four Socratic convictions:

1.  Truth is. 2.  Truth is knowable. 3.  Truth can be discovered. 4.  Truth is ultimately one [in the sense that all things fit together into a harmonious symphony of being].

The Sophists, Socrates' intellectual adversaries, denied each of these convictions. They believed there is no truth; and even if there was, you couldn't know it; and even if you could, you couldn't communicate it to someone else. Consequently, according to the Sophists, there is no principle of harmony, no logos to guide inquiry. You have your truth and I have mine. We live in two different mental universes.

The late 19th century saw the wide-spread triumph of the Sophist in the American school. Whereas Socrates tried to deconstruct a student's thoughts in order to bring healing, the Sophist (and the conventional educator) goes in a very different direction. Like Socrates, the Sophist has two stages, but not those of the classical educator. Socrates sought to expose contradictions. The Sophist seeks to debunk. Socrates sought to bring healing by remediating his disciples' ignorance. The Sophist seeks to condition. After all, when there is no truth to seek, all the teacher can do is influence students.

That's why, for educators who seek to cultivate wisdom and virtue in students, Socratic teaching is a meaningful, useful, and even necessary approach. For only a student who learns to seek Truth relentlessly can be truly wise and virtuous. And only a teacher who seeks Truth can be anything other than a tyrant, petty or otherwise.

Is There Wisdom, Virtue and Honor in American Education?

Andrew Kern

7 VOA1-066

The best American schools don’t remember why western civilization chose to build itself on education. Mostly, that is because the more we talk about education, the less we do it. That seems to be the conclusion at a recent Liberty Fund retreat I attended, after spending two days in leisurely discussion of Plato’s Republic. The conference was highlighted by the enormous revelatory power of Plato’s book and the discussion with others who have read it carefully.

Plato has much to say about the rightly ordered soul, all of it insightful and practical. For example, he describes the five types of soul – Aristocrat, Timocrat, Oligarch, Democrat, and Tyrant – each characterized by what we would call a “core value” (what he calls a “good”) leading to the cultivation of a particular virtue that will help attain that core value.

Plato called the Aristocratic soul the best soul (the Geek word “aristoi” means “the best”). His highest good is virtue itself. But humans can never quite reach that level, so in the real world we are more likely to come across the Timocratic soul, whose highest good is honor. This soul is the gentleman soldier, not out for his own gain but for the good of his community. His great temptation is to let honor slide into ambition.

Then there’s the Oligarch, the man who loves property or money above all else. He sees the Timocract lose money by pursuing honor, so fearing that loss himself, he makes money his chief value and highest good. But he’s a cheapskate. He hoards his money, and in Plato’s scenario, drives his son to bitterness. The son spends as much money as possible, giving free reign to his appetites and passions, making freedom his chief value, thus becoming the fourth kind of soul: the Democrat. Unfortunately, as a matter of practical reality, one cannot be free without money. Consequently the soul who values unrestrained freedom above all, loses it.

Finally, there’s the Tyrant who is charismatic. As people gather around him, his power increases. His chief good is control, and because his followers need his power to maintain their own version of freedom, he is able to inflict that control. Yet, because he has no friends, he becomes the most miserable of people.

It seems American education is made up almost entirely of Oligarchs, Democrats, and Tyrants.

We are obsessed with controls because, like those with too much freedom, we have become anxious. And we remain obsessed with freedom. We are a democracy. This is our most proudly proclaimed value. However, though some people have it, it tends to be a disordered freedom, a means with no end. But usually it seems to me American education is practiced oligarchically. It’s a miser’s education. We go to school to get a job after graduation. We have no time to enjoy life. Study is our life, and if we don’t study, China’s economy will top our own, and then who knows what will happen!

These are neat categories, but it seems their tidiness is a bit absurd. We are image bearers—doesn’t that count for something? Don’t each of us love honor and virtue, at least a little? And even in the worst schools, don’t some students and teachers seek wisdom, even though there’s much working against? Is Plato’s Aristocratic soul really out of reach?

Reality TV Wasteland?: I Beg to Differ

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson looks to reality TV to establish his new philosophies and contents of education.  He is very glad that Lent is over, as snark abounds in this columnStephen and Henry.

Recently, as I tried to convince the IT department why I needed "Hulu" and a couple other television-streaming websites unblocked, I was surprised to learn that not everyone innately sees the educational importance of contemporary reality television.

Who has not learned something from reality television?  I could found a whole school curriculum drawing from reality TV.

A Catalog- a brief selection

Survival 101: encourages students to challenge themselves through personal and physical challenges of deprivation and competition, while including discussions of ethics.  Section topics will also include Biting Fauna, Things You Might Be Surprised You'll Eat For Money, Things You'd Be Surprised That You'd Do For Something to Eat, and a brief discussion of history/anthropology.

Fitness and Weight Loss 220: strives to show students ways to adapt cultural standards of health and beauty on individual levels, rather than addressing the deeper, institutional, economic and cultural aspects of society that result in the definitions or extent of the problems. Methods will include strict dieting, large quantities of exercise and shame, as well as peer pressure.  Plastic surgery might be covered, time and need permitting, especially for female students.  The course will not emphasize long-term health or effects that are not visible or measurable, preferably on big screens and numbers in front of others.

New for Fall: ALL students must have liability waivers signed and notarized before any activities or surgeries begin.

Apprenticing in Business, Finance, and Other Competitive Industries 480: Students will examine ways to work as groups as part of a corporate environment, including introductions to basic business, marketing, and publicity concepts and exercises.  Additionally, students will be expected to become versed in the privileges and ethical laxity that their desired career owe them as a mark of their success.  A short thematic unit will cover staging "performances" that display corporate goodwill through a short period of working in a lower class job or the destruction and rebuilding of a needy person's house, regardless of the effects on their costs and abilities to retain the house in the future.

*Note: The quality of this class depends highly on the quality of participants.  So, come ready to learn.

Spring & Summer Interims in New Jersey, New York, Miami, Chicago, Cancun, as well as many road trips and tours will be offered to all students.  These courses emphasize interdisciplinary learning that test and encourage the development of problem solving, setting and keeping goals, travel planning, time management, and relational communication.

*Note: Additional, specialized interims will be offered on specific subjects as follows: "The Effects of Steroids", "Alcohol & Other Mood Altering Substances",  and "Inter-gender Non-verbal Communication" (Same-Gender N-V Comm. is offered when interest dictates).

*Additional Note: "Sitting in Cafes/Clubs, Awkward Silences, Staring, & Flesh-colored Beards"  will not be offered after this year, and all students must attend the "Social Diseases" workshops before and after their trips.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in detective narratives.

Enjoyment, Experience, and Reading

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson, prompted by a recent colleague's sharing of the "Read a Book" rap and expressing a desire to show it to their students.  Without getting into issues of race and class, what is the problem with the "reading issue" a bit more broadly?

Nothing New...

There's nothing new about a general frustration of an older generation of educators complaining about the lack of preparation of the future generation and a fear of a disappearance of books or quality books or the right books, and so on.  It seems that every year a cycle of e-mails make the teaching rounds of century-old quotes that sound just like our feelings of today.

It's Not that I Don't Like to Read, but...

What I've noticed might be changing is that while my students (both young and old) have less experience reading things on their own, they often express a desire to read more and learn to read for pleasure.

In fact, this week, one of my lit students commented during break, "I really like how we are thinking differently about this book, but I also wish that we could take time to enjoy it.  I don't even know how to do that anymore."  At first, my hackles raised, and I wanted to reply, "Well, that's because you're learning to REALLY look into a book and figure out how it means."  Fortunately, I stopped myself and thought for a second.

Why shouldn't we take time to teach/give credit for reading just for enrichment or pleasure?

Part of it is probably because the people teaching are often the one's who already love reading and take that as a given.  As can be seen by the launch of the iPad, an understanding of contemporary society must take on the growing assumption that things should "fit me".  On a certain level, this is pure hubris and entitlement, but "it is what it is", as they say.  Like it or not, people have less time for traditional "reading" and when one is not introduced to reading very early in life (Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone advocates that an interest in books should happen in the first 3 years), then where else will you get it?

It's Important, Really, but Don't Make It Too Important.

An NEA study from 2007 found all the usual suspects.  Reading is falling, and it is becoming more important for work.  However, what really gave me pause when this student asked her question was that the immediate assumption that emerged that one must justify reading in terms of educational, and primarily economic, reasons.

Would reading really not be something to teach if it only offered another way of enjoying oneself and connecting to other people, ideas, times, and places?  Looking at the books and movies selected for awards or even just for small, local book groups, one would assume that loving books means loving stories about the deaths of young girls, loss of innocence, or big, historical epics.

In writing this, I've often devolved into a screed against the focus on quantitative educational goals, but I need to keep deleting them and move on to the bigger points.  Reading is more than enjoyment, as I teach in my literature and rhetoric classes.  Reading is also more than analysis and critique, which is not really taught or encouraged anywhere, and I think it needs to be.

Why Can't I Stop Being Serious?

I'll give you a personal example of how difficult this is for me to accomplish.  A couple weeks ago, I was meeting a friend at my favorite bar, and I brought in the genre novel that I was reading at the time (Bounty-hunter Witch Lives with Vampire and Struggles for Her Identity).  After a while of sitting at the bar, a patron asked me, "What are you reading?"  I turned the cover so that she could read the title and author.  She inquired, "What's it about?" "Well,...[confused retelling of backstory]," and I immediately felt the need to point out, "Well, I study genre narratives, especially those about detectives and detective-like characters, and especially about individual morality and ethics."

Immediately after the addendum, she smiled and said, "Cool.  That's awesome that you study something that you love."  It was to this moment that my mind jumped just this last week when the student asked about reading for pleasure.  I do love the literature that I teach, well most of it, but I've loved it for so long that I forget what it is like to learn to love something.  That "learning to love" is a slow process, just ask my wife about onions, but it is a worthwhile process to learn, just ask my wife about onions.  It is something worth putting some time, effort, and reward into sharing with others, if for society in general, then at least for individual, selfish reasons.   While I am loath to say it, learning to love something might even prove useful for one's future life and career, but don't tell anyone I said so.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in detective narratives.